Thursday, December 26, 2013

best of 2013: part three of four

10) Ty Segall—‘Sleeper’ (Drag City)

This is the record that I imagined ‘Goodbye Bread’ was going to be when I first read about it. I’m kind of glad that ‘Sleeper’ ended up being Ty Segall’s acoustic record because I wasn’t quite ready for such a thing around the time of ‘Goodbye Bread.’ After releasing three solid albums last year an acoustic record seemed a bit odd in context—Segall has nothing to prove as a songwriter at this point, but when I listen to this record it becomes clear to me that that isn’t even the point. I’m sure a lot of people are going to cry ‘foul’ over this record since there isn’t a garage-rocking track to be found on the entire thing. Instead it’s filled with fragile and confessional beauty and even some pretty thick darkness. There is some anger and bitterness in these tracks that hits harder in this context than it would in Segall’s typical lysergic garage rock mode. Who would’ve expected a line like ‘the youth is wasting the Earth’s last breath,’ from an artist like Segall? It seems that expectation isn’t even in consideration here and Segall continues to confound and elude it at every pass. Plus, this album is majestic.

9) No Joy—‘Wait to Pleasure’ (Mexican Summer)

Last year I had the pleasure of watching No Joy blow Lower Dens off of the stage during their opening slot at the Empty Bottle. Their songs had a brutal fury that was pretty amazing to watch, but somehow their recorded material never managed to get its hooks into me until I heard this year’s ‘Wait to Pleasure.’ This record represents a sizable jump for the band—every single one of these songs has the capacity to be an earworm. Just try and listen to opening track ‘E’ and not get swept up in the beauty and the majestic, cresting layers of distortion and feedback. It’s the distortion and brutality that blow you away, but it’s the chorus of sonorous ‘oooooohhhh’s that keep you coming back for more. Not only that but the record twists and turns through a variety of styles and sounds supporting the band’s most fully-realized songs. There’s never a dull moment and the record is over far too quickly. No Joy are often called a louder and more unforgiving version of Lush, but on this record I can’t help but feel that they’ve really started to develop a sound that’s all their own.

8) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds—‘Push the Sky Away’ (Bad Seed)

Another deeply established artist with a brilliant, career-defining, self-released album. I couldn’t help but wonder what a Bad Seeds album would sound like without multi-instrumentalist (and foil to Nick Cave since the Birthday Party) Mick Harvey would sound like. I figured that they would continue on the path of call-and-response that was going on between the Bad Seeds and side project Grinderman, but then Grinderman called it quits and all bets were off. ‘Push the Sky Away’ does a great job of wiping the slate clean once again (something Cave has done several times during his lengthy and fruitful career) and here we have an album that has the beauty and fragility of 1997’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’ mixed with the intensity and menace of the earliest string of Bad Seeds albums (think ‘From Her to Eternity’ to ‘Tender Prey’). Then, of course, there are a few tracks that defy that description—there really isn’t anything like ‘Higgs Boson Blues,’ ‘Mermaids’ or ‘We No Who U R’ in Cave’s back catalog. The highlights for me have always been the slow-burning intensity of ‘Jubilee Street’ paired with it’s surrealistic twin ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ (in which Cave describes an alarmingly vivid dream he has immediately after he finishes writing ‘Jubilee Street’). The title track is an interestingly eerie sort of anthem, which isn’t normally the type of song that Cave writes.

7) Primal Scream—‘More Light’

‘What happened to the voices of dissent?’ Bobby Gillespie sings on ‘More Light’ opener ‘2013.’ It’s a surprisingly simple question to ask and it’s implication rings true. The answer is that no modern rock band has managed to be a voice of dissent as well as Primal Scream have continued to be. They’ve released a few confusing missteps over the years, but when they hit the mark it’s always a bullseye and ‘More Light’ is the perfect example. It rages with more fire than a lot of bands half their age are even capable of. Even the beautiful acoustic guitar lines of ‘River of Pain’ drip with anger, bitterness and urgency. As always they are able to come up with a seamless blend of genres that is difficult to understand or describe. Fortunately the need to do so is irrelevant as the Scream would rather show than tell.

6) The Warlocks—‘Skull Worship’ (Zap Banana/Cargo)

Every time Bobby Hecksher disappears from the public view after promoting the Warlocks’ last album I always fear it’ll be the end for the band—they’ve weathered so much and continued on despite setback after setback. It seems that after every tour Hecksher has to rebuild the sizable band from scratch, which must be exhausting. The gathering murk and shadows that surround the band currently seems to indicate that it is indeed exhausting for Hecksher to keep going, but this only emphasizes the fact that it’s never in question that the Warlocks has always been a labor of love for him. Each Warlocks record is an almost entirely new approach to a deceptively simple template—droning guitars and synths, Velvets-influenced drum beats (often doubled) and that unmistakable anguished wail. ‘Skull Worship’ is dark in the way that ‘Heavy Deavy Skull Lover’ was, the only difference is that the moments when it rages there is an entrancing desperation that wasn’t there before. ‘Heavy Deavy…’ had a darkness that was drenched in bitter anger. ‘Skull Worship’ has a nearly-defeated resignation that draws on an element of surprise. Even its most brooding tracks show their teeth at some point. Just when it seems that ‘Silver & Plastic’ is going to float along on its acoustic guitars and cellos those distorted melodies start to pile up in the background making it harder and harder to not take notice. ‘Endless Drops’ takes the riff from the 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘Rollercoaster’ and puts it through a fear-and-loathing blender riding an intense, terrifying groove filled with unexpected twists and turns. This is a very emotionally potent album that somehow turns desperation into a non-stop thrill-ride.

5) Mazzy Star—‘Seasons of Your Day’ (Rhymes of an Hour)

Like the new my bloody valentine album this is a great album by a band that hasn’t released anything in almost 20 years that fits in seamlessly with its other albums. I think of it as a more uplifting partner to ‘Among My Swan,’ which is an album that gets its staggering beauty out of the dark corners that it lives in. ‘In the Kingdom’ seems to pick up where ‘Look On Down From the Bridge’ left off—where one was about bringing about your own end and saying goodbye, the other is full of a refreshed and revitalized energy. This positive energy permeates ‘Seasons of Your Day’ giving even its most lovelorn moments a warmth and light that just wasn’t there before. ‘Among My Swan’ was an album made under intense scrutiny and pressure from a record company hungry for a second strike of lightning from a storm that they clearly couldn’t understand at all. That Hope Sandoval and Dave Roback were able to draw such a beautiful album out of such darkness was a miracle all its own, but not the type of miracle that their record label was hoping for. It seems that the experience left them so drained that when they could no longer fight they just curled up and played the waiting game and ‘Seasons of Your Day’ is the result. One of the most refreshing things about their return (and of other bands in their situation) is that they are able to use their lingering popularity to create something all their own and entirely on their own terms.

4) Grouper—‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ (Kranky)

This is the year I got into Grouper finally. Liz Harris’ ambient songwriting project is the type of music that came along at exactly the right time in my life. What’s most fascinating about ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ to me is that it’s a set of cast-offs. Harris assembled the album from songs that she had leftover after the release of 2008’s excellent ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.’ This is music that nails the beauty and grace of loneliness and isolation better than anything I’ve heard to date. I’m not sure what it is about ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ specifically, but it’s the Grouper record I find myself coming back to the most often—it’s intense and fluid and so immersive and fulfilling. People often think that sad music is meant to spread sadness, but I’ve always argued that it is meant to provide a source of hope to the disenfranchised. The best music of this ilk draws you in with how vividly you can relate to it which keeps you engaged and makes you feel understood and therefore less alone. All of Harris’ albums seem to be structured for just such a journey—they almost always end on an uplifting note.

3) Thee Oh Sees—‘Floating Coffin’ (Castleface)

I know that there’s an Oh Sees record or two in every one of my lists and has been for the past four years. I’m just as confounded as anyone that that is the case—how they are able to churn out such great records year after year has now officially left the realm of logical sense reeling in the dust. After last year’s ‘Putrifiers II’ it seemed like they could’ve gone anywhere they wanted and with the arrival of ‘Floating Coffin’ it seems that even that was somewhere better than I could’ve possibly imagined. Not bad for a band’s 14th full-length release in under ten years. At this point in time if anyone wanted to ask me what Thee Oh Sees were about this is the record I would play them—it has everything: their past, their present and probably their future. Punky garage rock that is drenched in psychedelic menace/paranoid overtones and sublime layers of impossibly fuzzy drones plus those hypnotic, childlike male/female vocal harmonies. It doesn’t make sense in a sentence and certainly shouldn’t in a band and yet, here it is. I’ve now stopped asking, “How does John Dwyer do it?” and have just resigned myself to going along wherever the ride leads me. The best thing about this record to me is that they don’t even have to make a better record than this one for it to be richly and generously satisfying.

2) Hookworms—‘Pearl Mystic’ (Gringo)

This record is amazing. It does almost everything that I want a psychedelic record (or any record for that matter) to do—it creates it’s own vivid and beautifully self-contained world. The popular myth about great psychedelic music is that it’s escapist—the truth is that it’s a type of music that aims to put you into an entirely different state of mind. In that sense this record delivers the goods in spades and there’s no single way that it goes about it, either—there are beautiful drones wrapped in fuzz, tremolo and mysterious vibes. Some of the songs are pummeling and others are curled in washes of feedback and distorted melody that beckon you to get completely lost in them. Few moments in the past five years have delivered the goods as perfectly as the first time I heard the nameless feedback drone melt into the closing track of this amazing album. Having listened to this record over and over again has failed to dull the impact, either. There’s nothing quite like when a closing track nails the landing of a fantastically put-together record.

1) my bloody valentine—‘m b v’ (self-released)

I’m going to skip all of the histrionics about the lead-up and release of this album because it’s all well-documented everywhere else. The fact of the matter is that this is a fantastic record—it fits perfectly alongside my bloody valentine’s other two seminal albums. I still don’t know which of the three is my favourite and I couldn’t care less—each one gives me something different. All of those parts form a whole picture of what has made mbv my favourite band since I first heard them when I was 16. The songs on this record are vital, passionate and vibrant. I actually find the production style of ‘m b v’ to be more to my liking than that of ‘loveless’—the thick, chunky sheer force of these tracks makes ‘loveless’ sound a little over-compressed. It’s appropriate as this is an entire record made exactly as Kevin Shields wants it. I continue to be confounded by those who found cause for complaint in this record. Really? A famously reclusive musician releases his first album in 20+ years and this is a bad thing? Was it worth the wait? Who cares—it’s not like anyone was just sitting in a room rocking back and forth for the entire time going ‘When will it come? When will it come?’ To me it’s something I never thought would exist, so to have it released and be a great record bursting with new ideas the fact that it had taken so long seemed besides the point to me. To me it’s just a great record by my favourite band that I never thought would exist.

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